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When It Hits the Fan: What to do When your Big Event is not Going as Planned

By Cathy Key
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We all hope it won't happen to us - but here are some pointers on what to do if your carefully planned event gets thrown curveball.

How to resuscitate your event

You’ve spent months planning your event and finally the big day arrives. You think you have covered every detail and every contingency and then, seemingly out of nowhere, calamity strikes: your keynote speaker forgot their passport and can’t get into the country;

Your online registration system has crashed and you can’t print out any name badges; you have 300 bottles of wine at the ready and you discover that you don’t have a liquor licence. Every meeting professional has run into these kinds of issues, what makes a difference is being able to handle these unexpected problems with grace and ease.

Houston - We have a Problem

I’m standing in the conference reception area greeting attendees when one of them comes up to me and shows me her phone. I take one look and I realize that we have a problem: the event app that we are using has a bug and is frozen. My own smile freezes as I thank the attendee and let her know that we are going to get it sorted out.

As I hurry off to investigate I feel sick to the stomach. Thoughts are wheeling around my head in an unrepeatable swirl of self-blame and embarrassment. My brain is screaming “Red alert! Red alert!” and there is adrenaline coursing around my system. However, a small voice inside my head whispers “Don’t Panic”. I take a deep breath and follow these steps.

Get the Facts

The first thing to do when a problem strikes is to get the facts and to set aside blame or wishful thinking. If your keynote speaker is stuck in a snow-storm in Toronto, then you need to find out if there is any way of getting them to your event on time. If you can’t get them on time, when is the soonest they will arrive? This is a time for action: phone calls, internet searches and for making bold requests.

At this point, you may find a small crowd of well-meaning but worried looking staff and volunteers huddled around your station. Delegate tasks to the most capable individuals where appropriate and politely tell everyone else to relax and that you will give them an update soon.

Tell the Truth

Once you are clear on the facts you need to let the key people know immediately. In the heat of the moment it's easy to see what you “could have, would have or should have done” differently, but that really will make no difference. The first step in dealing with a breakdown is to tell the truth to the people who have been affected. You need to give them the facts as soon as possible, with minimal drama and make-wrong. People appreciate the truth and usually they are great about it and will be your partner in finding a solution.

In our case the truth was that about half the attendees were unable to use the app and it was a bug that couldn’t be fixed in time for the conference. As we all came to terms with this, the obvious next question was: “Well, what do we do now?”

Discover the Why

This next step is the magic ingredient that can turn lemons into lemonade. Ask yourself this critical question: why was that part of the event important in the first place? You need to get right back to your core objectives and looking from there figure out a new way to fulfil on them.

Once we had come to terms with the fact that our event app wasn’t working we went right back to basics and identified two essential outcomes that we wanted to achieve: (i) To have the attendees engage with the conference, especially the exhibitors; (ii) For the attendees to have fun.

We looked at what else we could do that would create fun for the attendees and catalyze interaction with the exhibitors. After a bit of brainstorming we came up with a new idea that would not only fulfil those objectives but would be easy to implement. We created a game based on a scavenger hunt around the exhibitor hall.

The attendees had to visit the exhibitor booths to find 7 clues. Each exhibitor was given a set of clue cards that they would hand out to people visiting their booth. Once the attendee had found 7 unique clue cards they could put them together to win a prize.

The game was a massive success. The exhibitors loved it, as it brought a new wave of people to their booths and created an easy way to interact with the attendees. The attendees were over the moon: they loved having a mission and a challenge that was both simple and entertaining. Over and over again we heard people exclaim “You got me talking to everybody!” We had over 100 gifts to give away and there were hugs and tears of delight as people received their prizes.

Learn from It

The only way to avoid making mistakes is to never try anything new. But, if you do that then your events will soon become safe and boring. If you are daring enough to play big and to try something different you must also be willing to learn from your mistakes. The time to do this is a few days after the event, when the dust has settled and you’ve had a chance to catch your breath.

We learnt that there was a lot of demand and interest in an event app and we will certainly use it next year - but we also learnt that at the end of the day it wasn’t the technology that was important. What really mattered was engaging the attendees and the exhibitors and keeping our focus on the “why” and not the “how”.

Conclusion

If you plan events then you had better get used to the fact that things can - and do - go wrong. The bigger and bolder you are as a planner, the higher the likelihood that mistakes will happen or that things won’t go quite as planned.

One of the things that distinguishes a great event planner is the ability to deal elegantly with mistakes and to find even better solutions that deliver on the event’s objectives. What kind of problems have you run into during your events and what creative solutions did you find?

about the author

Cathy Key
Dr Cathy Key has been working in the event technology industry since 2002. During this time she worked side-by-side with meeting planners and built her own successful conference software platform. She is now an independent consultant and writer for Online Registration Review.
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